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My colleague Kyle Vandenberg posed an interesting query to finish his profile of Nashville’s starting goaltender before Game 5: which Pekka Rinne were we going to see that night? (Okay, he specifically said Thursday night, but you get the picture.)
Well, the answer to the question that night: the shitty one.
It has been a tale of two Pekka’s this Stanley Cup Final. One is the Pittsburgh Pekka, a smoldering dumpster fire who has given up eleven (11!) goals on forty-five shots-on-goal (a crisp .756 save pct., for those counting) and the other is the Nashville Pekka, a stone castle wall who has only conceded two goals on fifty-two shots-on-goal (a significantly better — but also unsustainable (but also who cares) sample size — .961 save pct.). Basically, Rinne has been the reason Nashville has either won or lost any of the games they have played in this series. As the Predators head home to Tennessee for tonight’s Game 6, we again have to wonder: which Pekka Rinne are we going to see tonight?
Pekka Rinne is the longest tenured Nashville Predator, and boy has he seen some lean times. Drafted with the final pick of the eighth round in 2004, he saw his first couple games in the season after the lockout. Then, he was called up to the team late in the 2007–08 season to third-wheel it behind Chris Mason and Dan Ellis, and took over the starter’s job from Ellis the following season.
In his tenure leading up to this season, the Predators have either missed the playoffs entirely, or never made it past the second round. Of the five teams that eliminated the Predators in either the first or second rounds, all but one went on to the Cup Final, and two squads even secured Lord Stanley’s Cup (’10 and ’15 Blackhawks).
All his waiting has culminated in this season, playing on a vaunted Predators team that, despite entering the postseason as a 16-seed, was seen by some as a bit of a dark horse to play deep into the spring. Their process is strong, and their defense corps is amazing. All they needed was average goaltending, and their game would take them far.
And, to start off the postseason, good lord did they get what they needed out of Rinne.
Need decent goaltending? How does three goals allowed over a four-game sweep sound? I know the Blackhawks were weaker this year than in years past, but holding them off the score-sheet for two games entirely is quite an accomplishment.
The second round saw Rinne match up against another steaming-hot goalie, Jake Allen, who single handedly pushed the Blues past the Wild. But while Allen turned back into a bit of a pumpkin, Rinne maintained his excellent form, helping write off the Blues in six games behind his .932 save pct.
In the third round, Rinne started to come back to Earth a little bit, but a .925 save pct. is still damn good, and a team just has to be competent in front of that to win most nights. The Preds were/are certainly more than that, and were able to dispatch the Ducks in six, as well.
Regression is a cruel beast, however, and it can strike at any time. Unfortunately for Rinne, it seems to happen in the city of Pittsburgh, and hard. In fact, coach Peter Laviolette had seen enough of Pittsburgh Pekka after the first period on Thursday night, yanking him after giving up three goals on nine shots in the opening frame.
Luckily for the Predators (and we hockey fans, who want more hockey and also love Game 7's), they are in Nashville tonight. If the trend for the series holds, Rinne should be unbeatable and the series should shift back to Pittsburgh for one final fight to the death. That’s a big “if,” though. And even then, Rinne would have to buck the trend on the road in Game 7 if he wants to hoist the chalice.
Of course, it could all be a narrative, if he manages to ward off the Penguins tonight and then potentially Wednesday night. But then we’d get a lot of narrative-esque stories about how focus and determination helped Rinne conquer his road jitters on hockey’s biggest stage after all his waiting and struggling. You know, sorta like this story.
Personally, I think Rinne’s an average goalie who has been on an absolute tear at the best time of the season to catch fire, until the fire burned out. Here’s hoping the embers catch again, at least for tonight, so that we might have one extra night of hockey. Or fire. I’m confused now.